It was just after the UUP endorsed the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and agreed to enter government. Members of a divided Ulster Unionist Council had made their way to several often hastily arranged meetings in the Waterfront Hall, where the UUP decided to ‘jump first’.
In the Ulster Hall and different hotels, the fractious differences over the Agreement were laid bare in the public arena. This was less the case at the party Executive although the Press was often briefed by one side or the other.
Discourse was always passionate but only strayed occasionally towards personal attacks as debate focused, not so much on power-sharing or the cross-border Borders but on the release of prisoners, ‘guns in government’ and the future of the RUC.
At many of the meetings, Council delegates had to run the gauntlet of protests where emotion sometimes spilled over into abuse. The votes supporting the leadership calling for endorsement of the Agreement were always close; mirroring the internal splits prevailing in many Constituency Associations, my own included.
Individual hearts and minds were not easily aligned as members had feelings of being pulled in different directions. Reconciling family loss or injury, damaged homes, never feeling totally safe, walking behind too many funerals of friends killed because a faceless someone waging a war decided their life should end; the work of a lifetime being blown out of existence with no apparent remorse was not an easy fit with a longing for a better future.
Having already pushed the internal boundaries to breaking point, the suggestion I made to a good friend and senior member of the party was in all probability, a risk too far.
The All-island referendum had provided an overwhelming endorsement for the Agreement with measured support from the Unionist constituency. In the elections which followed, the UUP emerged as the largest party and when the Assembly eventually met, took the position of First Minister.
Reports at the time claimed that it was the UUP which had insisted on the largely symbolic titular differential with what in effect were the two inter-linked and inter-dependent roles of First and Deputy First Minister.
A member of the Party Executive at the time, I had suggested previously to a good friend and long-serving Party Officer close to the decision-making and negotiations which resulted in the Agreement, First Minister should be offered to the SDLP leader John Hume. It was not yet clear that Seamus Mallon would take on the role of Stormont leader.
The look on his face told me all I needed to know. It was a pretty long shot. The proposal never went any further. Too radical and idealistic perhaps?
In the ‘heavy lifting’ climate of the times, earthier words probably came to mind.
The UUP may have jumped first but this would have proven too great a hurdle.
John Hume was not universally admired within Unionism.
Rightly or wrongly, it was felt that in comparing, on more than one occasion, Unionists to Afrikaners, he had over-egged the imagery of the ‘recalcitrant Orangeman’ for political advantage; a narrative seen as being designed to reinforce the image of a ghettoised minority and gain leverage with sympathetic listeners in the USA, Europe and Great Britain.
Obduracy and recalcitrance had never been in short supply within Unionism but anyone in touch with the internal debate ongoing within the UUP in 1998 would realise that there was also a swell of passionate support for a better and more peaceful future.
This was not always, when pursued, reciprocated by grounded understanding of the extent to which IRA violence and lack of de-commissioning acted to limit freedom of action; a culpability not fully acknowledged in the later narrative of Sinn Féin, the political party most closely aligned to republicanism at war, as peacemakers.
There was a view that in terms of final outcome and his perceived Catholic Nationalism, he favoured a form of joint authority for Northern Ireland.
Reconciliation was on the agenda as a firm commitment. Conflict reduction was limited by party interests as the Assembly, soon to founder on periods of suspension and turbulence, settled into a pattern of strained negotiations and resentful consensus, born not of full conviction, but on retaining as many zero-sum victories as possible.
Limiting vulnerability to the vociferous charges of betrayal by communal opposition was a factor.
The ugly scaffolding served only to support a structure which illustrated from its beginnings that it’s not about the structures but the people who inhabit them and the politics they promote.
The building may stand on a hill but it has fallen short on ‘high moral ground.’
The clues are in the Declaration of Support within the copy of the Agreement circulated to every home in Northern Ireland: the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust…… partnership, equality and mutual respect.
Set against this measure, the history of the Assembly speaks for itself; particularly so, since the St Andrew’s Agreement where, not least, the changes have served to ‘weaponize’ the post of First Minister; a development the UUP, prepared to face the reality of what it was agreeing to, could have acted to avoid in 1998.
The change, in the light of demographic preferences as illustrated in current polling, has come back to haunt political Unionism.
Recently, in a question and answer session at UUC, UUP leader Doug Beattie MLA was again asked if the party would serve in an Executive should Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party and take the post of First Minister.
In reply, he answered along the lines that he was not going to ask UUP candidates to knock on doors and suggest they would be content to not win the election; that his aim was to be First Minister.
Without second-guessing voters or predicting the outcome of the election, this does not seem a possibility, as polls are showing consistently. The response is serving only to present as an unwillingness to accept the outcome of the election; a reluctance to serve alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister, even when, as stated by the leader, UUP members sit on Councils where Sinn Féin and other Nationalists hold Mayoral positions.
At least, Colin Eastwood MP holds to the position that the SDLP will wait to see what emerges in an agreed Programme of Government before committing to join an Executive.
The symbolic nature of an Office which is a joint position within a devolved and regional Assembly subject to the decision-making of a sovereign Parliament at Westminster is being allowed to weigh too heavily within Unionism and being afforded too great a significance.
Should Sinn Féin gain enough MLAs to choose the position of First Minister, once the cavalcade of tricolours, if they take place, have run their course, the power of the position and the case for a Border Poll will not have gained in any significant way.
Sinn Féin leaders have said on numerous occasions that the offices of First and Deputy Minister are joint positions and the party would be happy to adopt the term of Joint First Minister.
Perhaps, if afforded the opportunity, the party should establish a pattern, act with magnanimity and propose that First Minister is shared as is currently the case with the positions of Taoiseach and Tánaiste in Dáil Éireann.
The situation is not constitutionally the same but it is food for thought and could be a primer for further considerations as to how we can de-commission the St Andrews’s Agreement to make positions less problematic and politics less adversarial and conflictual; to re-establish the factory setting ‘new beginning’ values inherent within the Agreement as envisaged in 1998.
Maybe the more worthwhile conversation in the long run would be to widen the scope of designation to allow for ‘other’ voices to fill the position of OFMDFM, Joint Minister or Shared OFMDFM.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.